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New NCAA Rules Challenged

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Chad Ganden is a gifted high school swimmer who won Illinois' 100-yard freestyle championship last year. Not surprisingly, a number of top-notch Division I colleges and universities are courting him, which makes Chad a prime candidate for an athletic scholarship. But there is a catch: Because Chad has not satisfied the course requirements under the National Collegiate Athletic Association's new academic eligibility rules, he has been barred from college-paid recruiting visits and any early signing.

The new NCAA standards, set to take effect in August, ratchet up the academic requirements high school students must meet if they want to compete in intercollegiate sports--and thus affect high school students' chances of winning athletic scholarships. But Chad and his parents say those rules discriminate against students like Chad, who has a learning disability. The Gandens have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice citing the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

Some observers suggest that a Justice Department decision in favor of the youngster could undermine the new set of academic standards. The Gandens certainly aren't the first to attack the rules. They have also come under fire from a number of NCAA member institutions and interested outsiders, who claim they are biased against minorities.

If the new rules stand, high school students who want to qualify fully for Division I schools will need a 2.5 grade-point average in 13 core courses and a combined score of 820 on the Scholastic Assessment Test or a 17 on the American College Testing program's exam. Students can qualify with a 2.0 GPA, but their SAT scores must rise to 900 or their ACT score to 21.

Chad, a senior at Naperville North High School in suburban Chicago, falls shy of the required 13 core courses. He has a learning disorder, which was first diagnosed when he was in 2nd grade. According to his father, Warren Ganden, tests show that Chad is of normal intelligence but has decoding and organizing disabilities in reading and writing. Because of his impairment, he was placed in alternative courses in English and history, but he also has taken regular courses. As a senior this year, he is taking all regular courses.

As things stand now, Chad could meet the admissions requirements of some institutions, and his family could pay the way. But under the new NCAA rules, he would be prohibited from swimming competitively, at least during his freshman year.

The NCAA rules do provide some flexibility. School principals, for example, can vouch that the alternative courses students have taken are comparable to the school's core courses. But Bruce Cameron, principal of Chad's school, says he cannot do that in this case. "Technically, they don't meet the criteria,'' he says. Cameron believes that "what the NCAA is doing as far as setting [standards] is very appropriate, and it needed to be done.'' Still, the principal is concerned about students like Chad, who, he says, could succeed in college with appropriate help.

According to Rhona Hartman of the Washington-based American Council on Education, many colleges and universities have built some flexibility into their acceptance policies for learning-disabled students. Federal law, she says, requires institutions to provide accommodations for such students. "The NCAA has been trying very hard to raise its standards,'' Hartman says. "In doing that, it has become quite rigid in making the rules and apparently has not dealt with the need to accommodate because of disability.''

But Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for the NCAA, says the group has taken learning-disabled students into consideration. With the proper documentation, she points out, students are entitled to seek core-course waivers and to take different forms of college-entrance tests.

"We need to balance two things,'' Reith says. "One is the very real need to accommodate students with learning disabilities. The other is to make sure that those accommodations don't in some way create opportunities for those not diagnosed with learning disabilities to somehow use that to get out of meeting the standards.''

--Karen Diegmueller

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